Federations head worried religious controversies will hurt donations

American Jewish groups are attempting to draw a distinction between the government of Israel and the people of Israel.

Jerry Silverman 370 (photo credit: SAM SOKOL)
Jerry Silverman 370
(photo credit: SAM SOKOL)
Jerry Silverman, president and CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America, has expressed concern that donations from the Diaspora to Israel could decline because of the crisis over the Western Wall and controversial legislation on conversion.
He also expressed skepticism about the possibility of restarting negotiations with the government over prayer arrangements at the Western Wall, as suggested by the Prime Minister’s Office.
Silverman, speaking to The Jerusalem Post on Thursday, said that the US Jewish community was extremely angry over the decisions on Sunday to approve the conversion bill for passage to the Knesset and to indefinitely suspend the Western Wall agreement.
But he said that an attempt was being made to “draw a distinction between the government of Israel and the people of Israel,” which he hopes will mitigate the impact on donations.
Nevertheless, he said he was concerned about the sentiment being heard from communities and individuals around North America.
“I’m hopeful that this crisis will not have a longterm effect on donations, [although] what we’re hearing from people who give to Israel is that they’re really questioning their support because of these government decisions,” said Silverman.
The JFNA chief said that it was still “too early to tell what their impact will be,” but added that “in the short term we could see cause and effect. I’m not blind to the feedback from our communities.”
US Jewry contributes some NIS 58 billion to the Jewish state every year, he noted, pointing out that this is almost as much as the country’s defense budget.
“So why are we even creating this rift, is it really worth it, we have enough challenges and issues with unity, and this just accentuates it,” he said.
“We have no issue with the people of Israel, but rather the government, and this has created a real challenge for our communities across the board. These decisions have been seen as devaluing non-Orthodox Jewry in North America and all of the Diaspora.”
In terms of negotiations for prayer arrangements at the Western Wall and the proposed new egalitarian section, Silverman said it was unclear how they could go forward at this stage.
“I support unity, I support parties coming together when and if they’re ready, but the Kotel agreement suspension changes the dynamic of the relationship,” he said.
“There has to be trust to sit down again; what’s going to be different? The [progressive Jewish] movements, the Women of the Wall, the Jewish Agency, the rabbi of the Western Wall and the Prime Minister’s Office spent threeand- a-half years negotiating, so why would we sit down again after such negotiations when two major parts of the agreement were frozen?” Silverman was referring to the joint entrance of the proposed egalitarian prayer section with the main Western Wall plaza, and the administrative committee for the egalitarian section which would have included representatives from the Reform and Conservative movements and the Women of the Wall organization.
These two issues were the most critical for those groups, but also the clauses most opposed by the haredi parties.
“All parties have to decide what would be different, and if there even is an opening to renegotiate,” said Silverman simply.
Regarding the conversion bill, he described it as “an existential threat to Diaspora Jewry,” and said that he and others had spoken directly with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about the legislation and “shared how impactful [it was] and how worried” they were about it.
“I believe he did listen and I am hopeful we can stop the conversion bill as it is right now,” he said.
The conversion legislation that has been advanced by the haredi parties, United Torah Judaism and Shas, would alter the legal status of non-state conversions in Israel, a precedent which the Reform and Conservative movements worry could lead to even more adverse changes to the determination of who is a Jew and the right to Israeli citizenship in the future.
Despite the many concerns raised in recent days, Silverman said he was generally optimistic about the future of the relationship between Israel and US Jewry and the broader Diaspora.
“I’m always the eternal optimist when it comes to the Jewish people, because I believe in the people of Israel...
I believe that over time, I’m hopeful we’ll be able to bring this back together, and focus on what is really key, which is the Jewish people.